A thirty-five year dream come true

Bryan Neale at the 2022 Super Bowl.

Bryan Neale at the 2022 Super Bowl.

Halle Pratt

The sea of fans dressed in blue and yellow clash against the fans repping orange and black. Over 70,000 people watch from above as the ball snaps. It’s fourth and one, forty-three seconds left on the clock. With the Rams up by only three against the Bangles, the game is close. Referee Bryan Neale is ready in position. He’s watching the ball carefully, with his whistle ready. Years of training have come to this point. The pressure is on, and he’s loving it. 

   For Neale, this Super Bowl was much different than watching the game at home. He had the opportunity to referee for Super Bowl 2022 at the age of fifty-three. “It was a thirty-five year dream come true,” Neale said.

   When Neale was a senior in high school, he decided he wanted to get into refereeing. “I was not good enough to play college football, but I loved football since I was in first grade. One of my football coaches, who was a mentor and father figure to me, told me I should get my referee license because it’s a way to make money in college,” Neale said.

   At eighteen, Neale got his referee license and had the opportunity to referee his first game in Bloomington, Indiana. “I fell in love with refereeing,” Neale said.

   In high school, Neale’s coaches told him to write down his goals on an index card to keep with him. He created his list with four refereeing goals: “I wrote down a goal to ref the state championship for high school. I wrote down another goal that I wanted to ref in the Big 10 by the time I was thirty-six. I wrote down that I wanted to ref in the NFL by the time I was forty-one. And I wrote down I wanted to ref the Super Bowl when I was fifty-one,” Neale said. “That’s how it all started.”

   After thirty-five years of being a referee, “I got super lucky and worked really hard and got the call for the Super Bowl when I was 52,” Neale said.

   Before the Super Bowl, Neale’s emotions were off the charts. “I was reminiscing with my family and friends. I grew up in a really small town of southern Indiana and I’m just a guy who loved football and got to be in the biggest game ever; it was really emotional that way,” Neale said.

   On February 13, 2022, Neale headed to So-Fi Stadium with his family and friends for the big day. “I was able to bring several family members with me and friends, my kids, parents, brother and sister-in-law, and three of my friends who I refereed high school football with,” Neale said.

   Having never been to the Super Bowl before, Neale’s family members were ecstatic. “Looking up in the stands and seeing my kids jumping up and down, was amazing. My kids don’t jump up and down much because they’re high schoolers. Seeing them jump up and down, it was just awesome,” Neale said.

   Anna Neale, Bryan’s daughter, recalls her exciting experience in the LA stadium. “The game itself was so cool, but all of the other aspects of the Super Bowl experience were just as interesting. I loved watching the big screen to see all of the famous people there. The atmosphere was so energetic and exciting throughout the whole game,” Anna said.

   As “America the Beautiful” played, Neale tried to soak in everything. “I always get emotional during that song. I just wanted to take it all in and I just kept looking around the stadium, trying to take mental pictures so I could remember the feeling, that was really really cool,” Neale said.

   Once the kickoff went, all of his emotions went away. “It was my job just like it’s my job every week in the fall. I just watch my keys, do what I’m trained to do, and make my decisions,” Neale said.

   With this year’s Super Bowl being held in Los Angeles, the atmosphere had a different feel. Neale recalls standing on the field and listening to the crowd around him. “It has this funny feel of lots of people cheering towards everybody, versus when you’re at a team’s home stadium and it’s really loud because for one team. But here, there was lots of cheering for both,” Neale said.

   Other than the tickets being more expensive, the game was ordinary for Neale. “When you’re in the stadium, it’s kind of just another game. There are a lot of parties and stuff before and people are having Super Bowl parties at home, but when you’re in the stadium on the field, it kind of feels like any other football game,” Neale said 

   The teams that advance to the Super Bowl are the ones with the good players. Therefore, “…they play really well and they usually don’t commit a lot of penalties. All that kind of goes into a normalized experience that way,” Neale said. 

   As a fan, it’s easy to overlook the refs on the field, unless the fans disagree with the call. The pressures Neale puts on himself pushes him to perform his best for the sake of the game and the fans. “The thing that I think surprises people the most would be how much we care about making mistakes. We put so much pressure on ourselves, way more than we ever get from fans and the media,” Neale said. “ We get the pressure on ourselves to perform at a high level and basically be invisible.”

   Referees have jobs outside of reffing, but this often goes unnoticed.  In fact, Neale has his own business outside of reffing called Blind Zebra, a company centered around sales coaching. 

   “As a fan you just sort of see the refs come out of the tunnel before the game and then you see them work the game and then you see them go back into the tunnel. They’d be surprised at how much effort and work we put in through the week while most of us still have other jobs and families and it’s not our main source of income. We do lots of work in preparation for those games,” Neale said.

   His daughter however, recognizes the hard work and effort Neale puts into each game. “It was so inspiring to watch my dad on the field. For as long as I can remember his dream has been to work the Super Bowl. It honestly was a dream come true for our whole family,” Anna said.

   In the stands, fans often question whether the referees are biased towards a certain team. However, this is a false assumption. “When you’ve been reffing for so long, you completely lose any affiliation feeling. I’m for me. I want me to do a good job. I’m cheering for ninety-two,” Neale says. “You just have two teams out there, one of them has blue jerseys on and one of them has white jerseys on, and that’s it,” Neale said.  

    At the end of the game, confetti flew through the air and fans decked in yellow and blue celebrated the victory of the Rams. The crowd was intense, but for Neale, this was just another ending to another game. “Every game sort of ends similarly, most games end in taking a knee, and then the players start to walk out and shake hands with each other, it didn’t feel any different other than confetti flying around,” Neale said.

   Neale’s experience at the Super Bowl will never be forgotten, not only by him, but by his daughter as well. “The main emotion I felt was proud of my dad. He has worked so hard to get to where he is now, and it all paid off,” Anna said.